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Five years after 'big bang', EU hesitates over new members

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Five years after a "big bang" took the European Union deep behind the former Iron Curtain, enlargement fatigue, worsened by the economic crisis, has gripped the bloc.

It was on May 1, 2004, that Europe's leaders celebrated the arrival of 10 new states, mainly from the East Bloc that endured more than four decades of communist rule after World War II. When Romania and Bulgaria joined in January 2007 the EU had grown to 27 members.

Institutional hurdles and divisions over whether mainly Muslim Turkey should be allowed in have added to fallout from the financial turmoil to dampen enthusiasm for Europe, to the detriment of Balkan nations that want to join.

"The economic crisis is making matters worse because people are inward looking, they're fearful for their jobs and they think about enlargement as a movement of low cost workers and that's the last thing they want at the moment," said Katinka Barysch, at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank.

Confidence has also been undermined by the EU's failure to adopt a new treaty to streamline the way decisions are taken as the bloc expands.

A planned constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, and the subsequent Lisbon Treaty has yet to be adopted, leaving the EU running on a stop-gap charter dating from 2000.

Calls for a halt to expansion are growing.

In Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) warned in its manifesto for European Parliament elections on June 7 that it "has required great efforts" for the EU to add the most recent members.

It called for "a phase of consolidation, during which a consolidation of the European Union's values and institutions should take priority over further EU enlargement."

While the CDU, which also faces a potentially razor-edge national election in September, is ready to make an exception for Croatia, Germany and France oppose the candidacy of Turkey.

The prospect of becoming a member of Europe's rich club has been a strong force for reform in the Balkans, and bringing Croatia in could help tame the nationalism that has undermined regional security.

Turkey's candidacy is more problematic -- essentially a perceived difference in basic "values" like religion -- even though Ankara too plays an important role in ensuring stability, through its membership of NATO and ties to Middle East countries.

Then there are bilateral disputes as countries take advantage of the process to settle issues with neighbours -- Turkey and Cyprus over customs, Slovenia's border row with Croatia, or Greece blocking Macedonia because of its name.

"You have all these bilateral issues that, even if there was not public hostility to enlargement and this sort of political enlargement fatigue, you basically would have very little movement," Barysch said.

Despite this, the doomsday scenario of a total breakdown after the "big bang" five years ago has never come true.

"Overall, EU enlargement has served as an anchor of stability and democracy and a driver of personal freedom and economic dynamism in Europe," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in a speech marking the fifth anniversary.

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, is also optimistic about the effects of enlargement and maintains that the economic crisis was simply a case of "bad timing" for expansion.

"The enlarged EU functions well. There isn't anything dramatic happening. There was no stalemate, none of the major fears related to enlargement pre-2004 has materialised, so there is no reason to fear," he said. (By LORNE COOK)


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